Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Apr 02 2016

New Arrivals This Week

Brown creeper (photo by Steve Gosser)

Brown creeper (photo by Steve Gosser)

The flowers are ahead of schedule and so are some migratory birds.  This week in Schenley Park I found four new arrivals.

Brown creepers (Certhia americana) spend the winter in the central and southern U.S. so they know about our warm weather and can decide to migrate early.  I saw several brown creepers and heard their high pitched, squeaky song along the Bridle Trail on Thursday.

 

Two very tiny birds, smaller than chickadees, arrived on Tuesday. It’s unusual to see them together.

Golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa), at left below, have a winter range similar to the brown creeper’s and usually migrate through before their ruby-crowned cousins show up.  I found both birds on March 29 when I heard the ruby-crowned kinglet singing “Stay away!” as the golden-crowned chased him.  I’ve never seen these two species fighting!

Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) spend the winter in the southern U.S. and even in eastern Pennsylvania but they’re a big deal here.  An appearance on March 29 is two weeks earlier than I expect them.

Here’s the ruby’s song and, at the end, the “chack” he makes when annoyed.

 

On Tuesday I heard a lone chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) along the Bridle Trail but couldn’t find him for two days.  He was hanging out with a flock of dark-eyed juncoes.  Bob Machesney says that in the North Hills the dark-eyed juncoes are gone before the chipping sparrows arrive.  This solo bird isn’t playing by the rules. 😉

Chipping sparrow in May (photo by Steve Gosser)

Chipping sparrow in May (photo by Steve Gosser)

Here’s the chipping sparrow’s song:

 

Watch for the first three birds in the days ahead.  Only the chipping sparrow will stay to nest in Schenley Park.

 

(all photos by Steve Gosser)

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Mar 05 2016

Grackle Day

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Common grackle in his dominance pose (photo by Shawn Collins)

Common grackle in a dominance pose (photo by Shawn Collins)

Because I’ve kept track of their spring arrival March 5 is Grackle Day at my house. It’s the day that the first common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) usually arrive in my neighborhood in the spring.

I hear them before I see them: “Skrinnnnk, Krinnnnk”  “Djuk Djuk.”  Listen to this audio clip and you’ll know what I mean.

The video below shows the males puffing up and calling to display their dominance.  The grackle whose beak points the highest is the one who wins.  😉

This year a few ambitious grackles passed through early.  I heard and saw a single common grackle on February 5 and two on March 1.  I’m waiting for more today.

Are there grackles in your neighborhood yet?

 

(photo by Shawn Collins, audio link from Xeno Canto, video by The Critter Window on YouTube)

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Mar 03 2016

Found A Brainy Bird

Florida scrub-jay on Joan's hat (photo by Chuck Tague)

Florida scrub-jay on Joan Tague’s hat (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Last week in Florida with Chuck and Joan Tague we found these brainy birds on Merritt Island.  On a similar trip in 2009 a jay was so bold that he perched right next to a replica of himself — a Florida scrub-jay pin on Joan’s hat.

Read how the Florida scrub-jay got so smart in this Throw Back article from February 2009:  Speaking of Brainy Birds.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Feb 23 2016

I Can Count Him

Published by under Songbirds

Spot-breasted oriole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spot-breasted oriole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here on the east coast of Florida I’m looking for a Life Bird.  I’ve been to this part of the country so often that I’ve seen all the easy ones, but there’s a bird in Broward County that fits the bill.

Spot-breasted orioles (Icterus pectoralis) are native to Mexico and Central America but were introduced to the Miami area in the 1940’s.  Since then they’ve raised families, spread out a bit and become so established that they’re “count-able” according to American Birding Association rules.  I found out they’re at Markham Park in Broward County where I heard that a western spindalis was hanging out with them in January.

The western spindalis is gone (alas! not reported since January 31) but the spot-breasted orioles are still there so I’m going to seek them out.

If I see one, I can count him.

 

(*) “Countable”: When a new species is introduced to North America it can’t be counted as a wild bird on ABA Life Lists until the ABA determines that it’s become established on its own.  Of course I have my own list of exceptions that count for me but aren’t official.  Click here for the ABA rules and here for the ABA checklist.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Alas! Bad luck. I didn’t find the spot-breasted orioles even though two were seen on Sunday.

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Feb 18 2016

Bird Watching Indoors

House sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)

House sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Last weekend was so cold that I watched outdoor birds while I sat indoors.  But sometimes the wild birds and I are both in the building!

Back in February 2009 I saw birds in the grocery store. Click here to read more.

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Dec 15 2015

Robins In December

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

American Robin (photo by Chuck Tague)

American Robin (photo by Chuck Tague)

The phrase “The First Robin of Spring” is misleading. We think it means that robins leave for the winter.  Not so in Pittsburgh.  We always have robins in December.

American robins (Turdus migratorius) are very versatile birds. They change their diet for the season, eating invertebrates in summer and fruit in winter.  They take advantage of invasive species, especially earthworms and bush honeysuckle.  They move quickly to places where we’ve changed the landscape, adopting our farms and suburbs.  And they’re flexible on migration.

Studies have shown that American robins migrate an average of 300-750 miles but that average doesn’t tell the whole story.  Some flocks head directly south, arriving in Florida by early December.  Others take their time, pausing when they find abundant food along the way.  Still others stay home or travel less than 60 miles from their breeding grounds especially in the last two decades as the climate warms.

Every December, huge flocks of robins feed and roost in Allegheny County.  In 2008 Scott Kinsey discovered 100,000 of them roosting in Carnegie.  The flocks stay through the month and are counted on the Christmas Bird Counts.  Then, when the fruit is gone, the ground freezes, or there’s snow cover the robins move on.

In Pittsburgh they normally don’t leave until January.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Nov 17 2015

Eye Color Is All That Matters

Published by under Songbirds

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Dark-eyed Junco in western PA, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

The juncos are back in town and, even if they don’t match each other, I can assure you they’re all dark-eyed juncos.

This wasn’t always the case. When I was young there were seven kinds of juncos: white-winged, Oregon, slate-colored, gray-headed, Guadalupe, Mexican and Baird’s. In Pittsburgh we normally saw slate-colored juncos and were very excited when an Oregon junco showed up.

Then in 1983 the American Ornithological Union (AOU) determined that despite plumage differences there are really only two species:  dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) and yellow-eyed junco (Junco phaeonotus).  The others are subspecies.

Dark eyed juncos range from Alaska and Canada down to Mexico.  Yellow-eyed juncos are found only in Mexico, southern Arizona and southern New Mexico.

Here’s a bird in New Mexico with dark eyes that would have been called an “Oregon junco.”

Dark-eyed junco in New Mexico (photo by Steve Valasek)

Dark-eyed junco in New Mexico (photo by Steve Valasek)

And here’s a yellow-eyed junco in Tucson.

Yellow-eyed junco (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-eyed junco in Tucson, Arizona (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So when you see an odd-looking junco don’t worry that his feathers don’t match the other birds.  Check his eyes.  Eye color is all that matters when identifying a junco.

 

(photos of dark-eyed juncos by Cris Hamilton and Steve Valasek. photo of yellow-eyed junco from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 16 2015

Tree Sparrows Are Misnamed

Eurasian tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Names are so confusing!

This bird looks like a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) but he’s not.  He’s a Eurasian tree sparrow and he’s the reason why our tree sparrows are called American tree sparrows.

Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus) are native to Europe and Asia (of course) but about 15,000 of them live in the St. Louis area now.  In the 1870’s, 12 were imported from Germany and established a breeding population but they were never as successful as their aggressive cousins.

Passer montanus is 10% smaller than a house sparrow, has a brown (not gray) head, and a black ear patch.  Males and females look alike and the juveniles are just duller versions of the same.

Eurasian tree sparrows are doubly misnamed.  They nest in holes in buildings, not in trees, and they don’t live in the mountains but they have “tree” and “montanus” in their names.  That’s because house sparrows dominate the cities of Europe and pushed this sparrow to live in the open countryside where there are trees.  In Asia the “tree” sparrow lives in cities.

American tree sparrows are misnamed, too.  European settlers thought Spizella arborea resembled the Eurasian tree sparrow so they called ours “American tree sparrows” even though ours spend the winter in scrubby places, not trees, and breed and forage on the ground.

Do you think the American tree sparrow below looks like the Eurasian one above?  I don’t.

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alas, they are all misnamed.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Nov 14 2015

Have You Seen One Yet?

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the past few weeks winter sparrows have arrived in western Pennsylvania.  We’ve seen dark-eyed juncos, white-throated, white-crowned, and fox sparrows … but I haven’t heard of American tree sparrows yet.

American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea) breed in Canada and Alaska and spend the winter in weedy snow-covered fields and backyards in the Lower 48 states, though not as far south as Florida.

When they do show up they can be confusing.  They resemble chipping sparrows except for a black dot in the center of their chests and a two-tone bill.  (Notice the yellow lower mandible and the dull brown upper mandible.) The two don’t mix though. Chipping sparrows are usually gone by the time the tree sparrows get here.

Watch for the arrival of this same-but-different bird.

Have you seen an American tree sparrow yet?

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 05 2015

Land-pipers

Starlings in monochrome (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Starlings in monochrome (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In Pittsburgh we don’t have sandpipers but in the winter we have something similar.  Can we call them “land-pipers?”

Click here for a Throw Back Thursday article from 2008 about our substitute for shorebirds: Land-pipers.

 

UPDATE:  Richard Nugent suggests they be called “lawn-pipers.”   Excellent name!

(photo by “Mr. T in DC”, via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original.)

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